Category: Alerts 2007
- Created on 18 December 2007
- 15 November 2010
News that British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons had been jailed in Sudan after allowing her pupils to call a teddy bear Mohammed fed straight into the UK media’s hate factory and its “war for civilisation”.
The Gibbons story was mentioned in a massive 257 articles in UK national newspapers in the first week, providing an excuse to boost claims of “genocide” in Sudan in 10 of these.
The suffering in Sudan has certainly been appalling - it is estimated that the conflict has cost the lives of 100,000 people with two million made homeless. But Iraq is far worse - the occupation has so far resulted in the deaths of 1 million people with more than 4 million displaced from their homes. Whereas, over the last year, the term “genocide” has been used in 246 articles mentioning Sudan - many of these affirming that genocide has taken place - the results of the US-UK invasion of Iraq, and of the earlier sanctions regime, are essentially never described in similar terms.
To its credit, an Independent leader warned that it would be wrong “to treat Ms Gibbons' case, as some have done, as a harbinger of the supposedly inevitable clash between the ‘enlightened’ West and ‘primitive’ Islam”. (Leader, Ms Gibbons and a teddy bear named Mohamed,’ The Independent, November 30, 2007)
The advice was largely ignored, however. Following Gibbons’ release after eight days in jail, a December 4 Telegraph leader described how the “delight and mutual congratulations that have characterised the agreement between the Sudanese dictator and the British authorities... presents a nauseating picture”. The arrest being, after all, “testimony to the danger of allowing a rogue state to proceed unchecked”. (Leader, ‘Sudan’s grotesque stunt,’ Daily Telegraph, December 4, 2007)
Is Sudan, then, to replace Iraq as the third “rogue” member of the “axis of evil”? Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips appeared to recommend as much, writing a day earlier of how the teddy bear incident was “yet another symptom of the great onslaught being mounted against our civilisation and towards which not one inch of ground must be given if that civilisation is to survive“. (Phillips, ‘The teddy-bear teacher and Labour's spineless response to a rogue state that threatens us all ...,’ Daily Mail, December 3, 2007)
Such preposterous hyperbole belongs in the same category as Hitler's description of Czechoslovakia as "a dagger pointed at the heart of Germany". (Quoted, Noam Chomsky, on Power And Ideology - The Managua Lectures, South End Press, 1987, p.33)
Phillips was similarly outraged when 15 British sailors were “kidnapped” by an Iranian warship on March 23 while on patrol in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq. Then, she raged at “a military debacle for Britain - a self-inflicted humiliation at the hands of Iran, at a time when the mortal danger posed to the free world by this rogue state is increasing by the day“. (Phillips, ‘The real issue isn't Mr Bean selling his story. It's our utter humiliation by Iran,’ Daily Mail, April 16, 2007)
Iran was, of course, “steadily advancing towards its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons with which it is threatening to bring about the apocalypse it has been working towards for the past three decades”.
Like the rest of the media, Phillips later fell silent when evidence emerged suggesting that the British sailors had in fact strayed into Iranian waters, and had therefore not been “kidnapped” at all. On July 22, the UK Foreign Affairs Committee reported:
"We conclude that there is evidence to suggest that the map of the Shatt al-Arab waterway provided by the Government was less clear than it ought to have been. The Government was fortunate that it was not in Iran’s interests to contest the accuracy of the map.” (http://www.publications.parliament.uk
Martin Pratt, Director of Research at the International Boundaries Research Unit at Durham University, pointed out that the British government’s map was “certainly an oversimplification... it could reasonably be argued that it was deliberately misleading”. (Ibid)
George Monbiot - Iran “Is A Dangerous And Unpredictable State”
This did nothing to dim the enthusiasm of journalists eager to portray Iran as a threat to world peace. George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian last month: "I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb." He added: "Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state involved in acts of terror abroad.” (Monbiot, ‘The Middle East has had a secretive nuclear power in its midst for years,’ The Guardian, November 20, 2007; http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/ comment/0,,2213812,00.html)
We wrote to Monbiot on the same day:
In your latest Guardian article, you write:
"I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb."
What is the basis for your belief, please?
You also write:
"Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state involved in acts of terror abroad. The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel."
Is it your understanding that Ahmadinejad, rather than Khamenei, is the supreme ruler of Iran? If so, why? And which "acts of terror abroad" do you have in mind? Do you include the claims that Iran has supplied EFPs to blow up US-UK tanks and troops in Iraq, for example?
Finally, what is the basis for your belief that Ahmadinejad is "opposed to the existence of Israel"?
DE and DC
We wrote a further two times but received no replies. Monbiot had earlier written to us in February 2005:
“If, as I think you have, you have begun to force people working for newspapers and broadcasters to look over their left shoulders as well as their right, and worry about being held to account for the untruths they disseminate, then you have already performed a major service to democracy.” (Email, February 2, 2005)
These were kind words but they surely overstated the case. In truth, we have little power to hold journalists to account - it is a simple matter for them to ignore our emails.
Monbiot’s comments on Iran recall his pre-war comments on Iraq. At a crucial time politically, he wrote in November 2002: "if war turns out to be the only means of removing Saddam, then let us support a war whose sole and incontestable purpose is that and only that..." (Monbiot, 'See you in court, Tony,' The Guardian, November 26, 2002)
We asked him:
"Can you explain why you would prioritise the support of such a war ahead of a war to remove the Algerian generals, the Turkish regime, the Colombian regime, or maybe Putin? Would you also support a war to remove these regimes, if this turns out to be the only way?" (Email, November 26, 2002. See our series of Media Alerts, beginning with: http://www.Media Lens.org/alerts/02/021202_Monbiot_Iraq.HTM)
He replied the same day:
“The other nations you mention have some, admittedly flimsy, domestic means of redress: in other words, being democracies, or nominal democracies, citizens can, in theory, remove them without recourse to violent means. There is no existing process within Iraq for removing the regime peacefully. Like many of those who oppose this war with Iraq, I also want to help the Iraqi people to shake off their dictator...
“As I suggest in my article, we must try the non-violent means first, and there are plenty which have not been exhausted. But if all the conditions which I believe would provide the case for a just war are met - namely that less violent options have been exhausted first, that it reduces the sum total of violence in the world, improves the lives of the oppressed, does not replace one form of oppression with another and has a high chance of success - then it seems to me that it would be right to seek to topple Mr Hussein by military means.” (Email, November 26, 2002)
We asked him if he thought Iraq was a special case to be singled out for this kind of treatment. He replied:
"I do not believe that Iraq is a special case, or, rather, I do not believe that it is any more special than a number of other cases." (Email, November 27, 2002)
So why single out Iraq, just then, when the British and American governments were clearly intent on attacking Iraq? He replied:
"... why did I write that column about Iraq, rather than about Burma or West Papua? The answer is that Iraq is the issue over which the ideological battles of the moment are being fought. Yes, of course the reason for this is that the hawks in the US have put it on the agenda." (Email, December 3, 2002)
The elusive but key truth is that mainstream politics and media have an astonishing capacity to make certain issues seem particularly real and important while consigning others to oblivion. To criticise the actions of the Iranian state, for example, is to have a voice - our words are likely to matter, they may well be heard; they can lead to discussion and even action. To criticise the actions of a government of marginal media interest is to be a voice in the wilderness - we might as well be muttering to ourselves in the bath. The temptation for a professional journalist is to be 'relevant', to accept mainstream parameters of debate, and to ignore the costs of his or her actions.
By late 2002, establishment propaganda had made the need to take action to deal with Saddam Hussein’s regime seem real, urgent and important - Monbiot was swept along in the wake of that propaganda. Something similar appears to be happening again, now, over Iran.
On December 18, we analysed the UK national press over the last 20 years searching for ‘gay rights’ and ‘Iran’. We found 79 mentions - 56 of these have been since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq:
2007 - 14
2006 - 9
2005 - 9
2004 - 19
2003 - 6 (5 post-invasion, 1 pre-invasion)
2002 - 2
2001 - 3
2000 - 1
1999 - 1
1998 - 2
1997 - 2
1996 - 1
1995 - 1
1994 - 5
1992 - 1
1989 - 1
1988 - 2
Following the invasion, Iran took the place of Iraq as the West’s official enemy - it was the ideal scapegoat for the catastrophic occupation and a suitable device for maintaining the traditional fear of foreign ‘threats’.
We found a similar pattern when searching for the terms ’Taliban’ and ‘women’s rights’. Since February 1995, there have been 56 mentions in the Guardian. Of these, 36 have appeared since the September 11, 2001 attacks. Following the September 11 attacks, there was the same number of mentions (nine) in the last three and a half months of that year as there had been in the previous three years combined. 90% of the mentions in 2001 occurred after 9-11.
US Spies Confound The Warmongers
Just two weeks after Monbiot’s comments on Iran, his own newspaper covered the latest report by the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which summarises the work of the 16 American intelligence agencies. The report, ‘Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,’ disclosed that Iran has not been pursuing a nuclear weapons development programme for the past four years:
"Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons programme suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.” (Ewen MacAskill, ‘US spies give shock verdict on Iran threat: Intelligence agencies say Tehran halted weapons programme in 2003,’ The Guardian, December 4, 2007)
The report concluded: "We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme." (Ibid) The programme had not been restarted as of the middle of this year.
Other evidence challenges the claim that Iran is supplying sophisticated weaponry to Iraqi insurgents. In May, the Guardian devoted an entire front page column to anonymous US military sources who insisted:
"Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq and it's a very dangerous course for them to be following. They are already committing daily acts of war against US and British forces." (Simon Tisdall, 'Iran's secret plan for summer offensive to force US out of Iraq,’ The Guardian, May 22, 2007. You can see the front page to the left, click it for a larger version)
Journalists have long taken for granted that Iran is smuggling advanced roadside bombs, known as Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFPs), into Iraq. However, in October, historian and security analyst Gareth Porter described on Inter Press Service how the US military command had accused Iran last January of providing EFPs despite knowing that Iraqi machine shops had been producing their own EFPs for years. By late 2005, the British military had found clear evidence that Iraqi Shiites were manufacturing their own EFPs.
The US command also had substantial evidence that the Iraqi Mahdi army had received EFP technology and training on how to use it from Hezbollah rather than Iran. In November 2006, a senior intelligence official told the New York Times and CNN that Hezbollah had trained as many as 2,000 Mahdi army fighters in Lebanon. According to British expert Michael Knights, writing in Jane's Intelligence Review last year, the earliest EFPs appearing in Iraq in 2004 were probably constructed by Hezbollah specialists. Porter noted that British and US officials have long known that the EFPs being used in Iraq closely resemble weapons used by Hezbollah against Israeli forces in Southern Lebanon.
Despite all of this, Porter observed, the US command, operating under close White House supervision, “chose to deny these facts in making the dramatic accusation that became the main rationale for the present aggressive US stance toward Iran”. (Porter, ‘U.S. Military Ignored Evidence of Iraqi-Made EFPs,’ IPS, October 25, 2007; http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=39810)
And so, while the media continue to capitalise on any excuse to promote a “clash of civilisations” between the West and “militant Islam”, it remains a remarkable fact that the ‘threats’ faced are mostly invented. Much of the actual violence against the West has been, and will continue to be, in retaliation for grave Western crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and elsewhere consuming literally millions of lives.
The simplest way for the West to bring its “war on terror” to a successful conclusion would be for it to stop waging war and to renounce terrorism.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Melanie Phillips
Write to George Monbiot
Category: Alerts 2007
- Created on 06 December 2007
- 15 November 2010
“See The World Through Their Eyes”
For several months now, non-UK visitors accessing the Guardian website have been shown an endlessly revolving animation in three segments that would not look out of place on FAIR, ZNet, or indeed Media Lens.
The first segment depicts a blue-eyed man wearing glasses with images of anti-war demonstrators reflected in the glasses. The protestors are carrying a banner that reads: “End The War NOW!” It instantly recalls the enormous February 15, 2003 anti-war march in London.
The second segment shows a nervous-looking woman in traditional Arab dress with intense flames reflected in her eyes. The third has two grief-stricken women, again in Arab dress, with one carrying a frightened child - their images are reflected in a soldier’s goggles. The animation ends with the words:
“See the world through their eyes. The Guardian Weekly Global Network (theguardian weekly.co.uk)”
These images are shown hour after hour, week after week, to people visiting the site. This surely is a newspaper subjecting Western policies to fierce critical analysis. It must be focussing relentlessly on Iraqi, Afghan and other civilian suffering as a result of these policies.
But in reality, the Guardian has a long history of supporting Western state violence and of suppressing the truth of its consequences.
In 1956, the Guardian’s editors backed military action during the Suez crisis:
“The government is right to be prepared for military action at Suez“, the paper wrote, because Egyptian control of the canal would be “commercially damaging for the West and perhaps part of a plan for creating a new Arab Empire based on the Nile”. (Leader, August 2, 1956; cited, Murray Mcdonald, ‘50,000 editions of the imperialist, warmongering, hate-filled Guardian newspaper,’ July 2007; www.Media Lens.org/forum/viewtopic.php ?t=2617&highlight=murray+McDonald)
In 1991, a Guardian leader hailed the righteousness of Operation Desert Storm in almost biblical terms:
“The simple cause, at the end, is just. An evil regime in Iraq instituted an evil and brutal invasion. Our soldiers and airmen are there, at UN behest, to set that evil right. Their duties are clear ... let the momentum and the resolution be swift.” (Leader, January 17, 1991, ibid)
Eric Hoskins, a Canadian doctor and coordinator of a Harvard study team, later reported that the ensuing allied bombardment “effectively terminated everything vital to human survival in Iraq - electricity, water, sewage systems, agriculture, industry and health care”. (Quoted, Mark Curtis, 'The Ambiguities of Power - British Foreign Policy since 1945', Zed Books, 1995, pp.189-190)
The Guardian used the word ‘evil’ three times in a single paragraph in its leader. The same emotive word has not been used once in any Guardian editorial to describe the Bush-Blair-Brown invasion of Iraq - a war crime that has cost the lives of one million people and forced 4 million more from their homes.
In March 1999, the lack of United Nations approval did not deter the Guardian from again supporting war:
“The only honorable course for Europe and America is to use military force to try to protect the people of Kosovo.” (Leader, ‘The sad need for force,’ The Guardian, March 23, 1999)
Guardian journalist Maggie O’Kane later conceded of Kosovo: “this is a tale of how to tell lies and win wars, and how we, the media, were harnessed like beach donkeys and led through the sand to see what the British and US military wanted us to see in this nice clean war”. (O’Kane, The Guardian, December 16, 1995)
In December 2001, the Guardian celebrated a quick victory in Afghanistan:
“... the US-led campaign in Afghanistan continues to be far more successful than the pessimists, and even most optimists, ever thought possible. It is always harder to act than not to act, but the action taken by the US has been largely vindicated, at least in the short term... This is not a reason for silly gloating; but it certainly ought to be a reason for those who have consistently claimed to know that each stage of the operation would create some new and worse catastrophe to confess that they got it wrong. Their confidence turned out to be fear. Their apparent knowledge was in fact ignorance. Their belief that history would prove them right proved only the more useful lesson that history repeats itself until it does not. The war was largely over by Christmas after all.” (Leader, ‘They did it their way: George Bush, not Tony Blair, is the victor,’ The Guardian, December 8, 2001)
In February 2003, just four years after Kosovo, the Guardian was once again happy to lend credence to an obviously fraudulent pretext for war:
“It is not credible to argue, as Iraq did in its initial reaction to Mr Powell [at the Security Council], that it is simply all lies... Iraq must disarm.” (Leader, ‘Powell shoots to kill,’ The Guardian, February 6, 2003)
Four days after US tanks entered Baghdad in April 2003, leading Guardian commentator Hugo Young was quick to justify Blair’s war of aggression - the supreme war crime:
“For a political leader, few therapies compare with military victory. For a leader who went to war in the absence of a single political ally who believed in the war as unreservedly as he did, Iraq now looks like a vindication on an astounding scale... No one can deny that victory happened. The existential fact sweeps aside the prior agonising.” (Young, ‘So begins Blair's descent into powerless mediocrity,’ The Guardian, April 13, 2003)
A Time To Say Goodbye
Like the Guardian’s animation, columnist and Guardian assistant editor Madeleine Bunting gives the impression that her newspaper is a compassionate voice against violence. Bunting recently lamented how the slaughter in Iraq had been “normalised into the background of our lives”. A “public revulsion” at the violence remains, but “the horror gives way to exhaustion”. (Bunting, ‘The Iraq war has become a disaster that we have chosen to forget,’ The Guardian, November 5, 2007)
Part of the problem, Bunting continued, was that the war has become almost impossible to report, taking “either terrifying courage or extraordinary ingenuity” to bring images to our screens of those caught up in the disaster.
But something doesn’t add up. As Bunting noted in her own article, fully one in six Iraqis has been displaced from the country, many escaping to Syria (1.4 million) and Jordan (750,000). Are we really to believe that it takes “terrifying courage” for journalists to fly to Damascus and Amman to cover their plight? And yet coverage of the suffering of Iraqi refugees is almost completely absent from the British media. In fact, there has been so little in-depth reporting we may struggle to imagine what it looks like.
A sublime example is provided by the courageous young Iraqi writer, Riverbend, on her Baghdad Burning website: http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com/
In her September 7 entry, ‘Leaving home,’ she gave an insight into the tragedy that has engulfed Iraq’s 4 million refugees. The misery of lives uprooted by fear and violence was communicated through the simple truth of the details recorded. As she and her family prepared to leave Baghdad, their life-long home, each family member was able to take just one suitcase full of personal belongings. Riverbend wrote:
“Two months ago, the suitcases were packed. My lone, large suitcase sat in my bedroom for nearly six weeks, so full of clothes and personal items, that it took me, E. and our six year old neighbor to zip it closed.... I packed and unpacked it four times. Each time I unpacked it, I swore I’d eliminate some of the items that were not absolutely necessary. Each time I packed it again, I would add more ‘stuff’ than the time before.”
“It was a tearful farewell as we left the house. One of my other aunts and an uncle came to say goodbye the morning of the trip. It was a solemn morning and I’d been preparing myself for the last two days not to cry. You won’t cry, I kept saying, because you’re coming back. You won’t cry because it’s just a little trip like the ones you used to take to Mosul or Basrah before the war...
“It was time to go and I went from room to room saying goodbye to everything. I said goodbye to my desk - the one I’d used all through high school and college. I said goodbye to the curtains and the bed and the couch. I said goodbye to the armchair E. and I broke when we were younger. I said goodbye to the big table over which we’d gathered for meals and to do homework. I said goodbye to the ghosts of the framed pictures that once hung on the walls, because the pictures have long since been taken down and stored away - but I knew just what hung where. I said goodbye to the silly board games we inevitably fought over - the Arabic Monopoly with the missing cards and money that no one had the heart to throw away.
“I knew then as I know now that these were all just items - people are so much more important. Still, a house is like a museum in that it tells a certain history. You look at a cup or stuffed toy and a chapter of memories opens up before your very eyes. It suddenly hit me that I wanted to leave so much less than I thought I did.
“I cried as we left - in spite of promises not to. The aunt cried... the uncle cried. My parents tried to be stoic but there were tears in their voices as they said their goodbyes. The worst part is saying goodbye and wondering if you’re ever going to see these people again. My uncle tightened the shawl I’d thrown over my hair and advised me firmly to ‘keep it on until you get to the border’. The aunt rushed out behind us as the car pulled out of the garage and dumped a bowl of water on the ground, which is a tradition - its to wish the travelers a safe return... eventually.”
How often have we been allowed to be touched by this kind of truthfulness humanising Iraqi misery for the reader? Where is the media focus on personal details with the power to transform anonymous masses, mere numbers, into people? Where is the depth of concern suggested by the Guardian in its website animation?
In fact, the Guardian did set aside 625 words for Riverbend to publish a curiously bland piece in May (’Goodbye Baghdad,’ May 11, 2007; www.guardian.co.uk/ comment/story/0,,2077244,00.html) - the only time she has ever appeared in the paper in four years of searing eyewitness commentary. Even we have published almost twice as many words (1,155) in a single article in the Guardian over the same period.
The only other appearance Riverbend has made in the UK press was in a much more substantial, 2,500-word piece in the Sunday Times (April 2, 2006). The other 19 mentions she has received in national quality newspapers have been mostly brief reviews of her book Baghdad Burning.
Riverbend’s words were written in a country that has seen perhaps a million people killed since 2003, and 1.5 million more killed as a result of sanctions since 1990. In his crucial book, A Different Kind Of War - The UN Sanctions Regime In Iraq (Barghahn Books, 2006), former UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, Hans von Sponeck, writes:
“At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical and mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-for-Food Programme.” (p.144)
“The [US-UK] hard-line approach prevailed, with the result that practically an entire nation was subjected to poverty, death and destruction of its physical and mental foundations.” (p.161)
And this was the major reason why, as von Sponeck notes, the number of excess deaths of children under five during 1991-1998 was between 400,000 and 500,000. (Ibid, p.165)
This was even before the even worse catastrophe that has followed the 2003 invasion. We need to be clear, than, that Riverbend’s words describe experiences comparable to history‘s very worst tragedies - she is a latter-day Anne Frank. And these events are happening now, a few hours from London, as a result of our own government’s actions.
It is shocking to read Riverbend and to realise just how alienated we are from the truth of Iraq. We know because, in reading her words - of the 6 year-old neighbour helping to heave the suitcase closed, of the beloved table where the homework was done - the reality of the Iraqi people suddenly rushes into focus. We can picture Riverbend doing her homework, we know her tears on leaving her home, we can imagine her little neighbour, because we have known all of these things in our own lives. She could be any articulate, intelligent young woman writing from any city in Britain.
We are reading the impressions of a soul sensitive to the pain of separation from familiar objects, to empty spaces on walls, to the uncertainty of separation from neighbours and relatives - and yet it is this same soul that has endured 12 years of ferocious bombing, dictatorship and sanctions, and four more years of cataclysmic violence. This consciousness, this sensitivity, could so easily have been snuffed out at any time, like so many others have been.
On February 20, the normally restrained Riverbend wrote of the gang rape of an Iraqi woman, Sabine, by Iraqi “security forces“. She concluded her piece with these words:
“As the situation continues to deteriorate both for Iraqis inside and outside of Iraq, and for Americans inside Iraq, Americans in America are still debating on the state of the war and occupation - are they winning or losing? Is it better or worse.
“Let me clear it up for any moron with lingering doubts: It’s worse. It’s over. You lost. You lost the day your tanks rolled into Baghdad to the cheers of your imported, American-trained monkeys. You lost every single family whose home your soldiers violated. You lost every sane, red-blooded Iraqi when the Abu Ghraib pictures came out and verified your atrocities behind prison walls as well as the ones we see in our streets. You lost when you brought murderers, looters, gangsters and militia heads to power and hailed them as Iraq’s first democratic government. You lost when a gruesome execution was dubbed your biggest accomplishment. You lost the respect and reputation you once had. You lost more than 3000 troops. That is what you lost America. I hope the oil, at least, made it worthwhile.”
This honesty shamed just about every last journalist writing in the UK media. Riverbend now writes, far less often, as a refugee in Syria.
The Guardian Performance - Just Numbers
In the last six months, the Guardian has focused in less than a dozen articles specifically on the plight of Iraqi refugees. Mostly, these have been short, dry news pieces documenting the latest statistics of suffering from the latest aid agency reports. On July 31, Jonathan Steele covered a report by Oxfam and a network of 80 aid agencies that described “a nationwide catastrophe, with around 8 million Iraqis - almost a third of the population - in need of emergency aid”. (Steele, ’Children hardest hit by humanitarian crisis in Iraq,’ The Guardian, July 31, 2007)
On August 27, Ian Black’s report was titled “Displaced Iraqis double despite US military surge” (Black, The Guardian, August 27, 2007). No irony was intended in Black’s use of “despite”, although it would be unthinkable in coverage of any other illegal Great Power occupation.
More statistics followed from Suzanne Goldenberg on September 20: “2m Iraqis forced to flee their homes: Many move several times in search of safety and jobs Ethnic map redrawn, says Red Crescent report.” (Goldenberg, ‘Refugees in their own land,’ The Guardian, September 20, 2007)
There were no descriptions of spaces on walls, no little neighbours struggling with suitcases, no tears - just numbers.
Five days later, Richard Norton-Taylor reported similar figures in a 326-word piece. On October 11, Julian Borger noted that Amnesty International had criticised Britain over its forced returns of Iraqi refugees. The usual aid agencies were quoted:
“‘There are more and more makeshift camps in abysmal conditions, with terrible sanitation and water supply, very little or no healthcare, and no schools,’ Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UN high commissioner for refugees, said yesterday.” (Borger, ‘Iraqi provinces shut out internal refugees,’ The Guardian, October 11, 2007)
To be sure, the details of British government indifference were disturbing enough. Out of 740 rulings on the fate of Iraqi refugees last year Britain granted asylum to 30, according to Home Office figures. The US allowed entry to 535 Iraqis last year, less than a fifth of the number it accepted in 2000, three years before the war began.
And we recall how Tony Blair insisted, with quivering jaw, that compassion for the fate of Iraqi civilian suffering was of course at the very heart of the US-UK motivation for attacking that country:
"But the moral case against war has a moral answer: it is the moral case for removing Saddam... Yes, there are consequences of war. If we remove Saddam by force, people will die, and some will be innocent. And we must live with the consequences of our actions, even the unintended ones. But there are also consequences of 'stop the war'. There will be no march for the victims of Saddam, no protests about the thousands of children that die needlessly every year under his rule, no righteous anger over the torture chambers which if he is left in power, will remain in being..." (Blair, 'The price of my conviction', The Observer, February 16, 2003)
On October 20, the Guardian’s Michael Howard finally did supply a couple of paragraphs of personal testimony on the fate met by Iraqis who had fled their homes in Baghdad as they faced bombardment from Turkey in the North of Iraq. (Howard, ‘Kurdistan: Iraqis who fled homes in fear face new terror as Turkey targets PKK rebels,’ The Guardian, October 20, 2007)
And on December 5, Michael Howard wrote of “thousands of refugees and internally displaced people who are returning to their former homes following the recent lull in sectarian violence”. (Howard, ‘UN promises aid as displaced Iraqis head home,’ The Guardian, December 5, 2007)
This is the propaganda version of events being widely pushed throughout the media. A week earlier, the Guardian’s own Jonathan Steele had reported a UN survey of Iraqi refugees which described their real reasons for returning to Iraq: “only 14% felt security had improved. Forty-six per cent said they could no longer afford to stay in Syria, and 25% said their visas had expired and they were ‘obliged to leave‘.” (Steele, ‘Refugees celebrate first bus back to Iraq,’ The Guardian, November 28, 2007)
In the last six months, the Guardian has published not a single in-depth report based around eyewitness accounts of the suffering of Iraqi refugees.
This is not an isolated phenomenon linked to “compassion fatigue”, as Bunting would have us believe. Analysis of the media record shows that human beings are consistently divided into “worthy” and “unworthy” victims.
On January 19, 100 eminent doctors backed by a group of international lawyers wrote to Tony Blair of Iraq:
“Sick or injured children, who could otherwise be treated by simple means, are left to die in their hundreds because they do not have access to basic medicines or other resources. Children who have lost hands, feet, and limbs are left without prostheses.” (The Letter: 'Sick or injured children, who could be easily treated, are left to die in hundreds'; http://news.independent.co.uk/world/middle_east/article2165471.ece)
The doctors added:
“... we call on the UK Government not to walk away from this problem, but to fulfil its obligations that it entered into under Security Council Resolution 1483 during the period 22 May 2003 to 28 June 2004“.
But the government did walk away and the Guardian failed to report the story.
On September 14, a report by the British polling organisation, Opinion Research Business (ORB) revealed that 1.2 million Iraqi citizens “have been murdered” since the March 2003 US-UK invasion. (www.opinion.co.uk/Newsroom_details.asp x?NewsId=78)
The Guardian failed to report the poll.
In 2006, Hans von Sponeck published his forensic, damning account detailing US-UK responsibility for the catastrophic impact of sanctions on Iraq. The Guardian has not reviewed the book, nor even mentioned its existence.
Abandoned by the British government and the British media, the Guardian included, Iraq’s refugees continue their struggle for survival. Posting from Syria, one newly displaced refugee, Riverbend, writes:
“As we crossed the border and saw the last of the Iraqi flags, the tears began again. The car was silent except for the prattling of the driver who was telling us stories of escapades he had while crossing the border. I sneaked a look at my mother sitting beside me and her tears were flowing as well. There was simply nothing to say as we left Iraq. I wanted to sob, but I didn’t want to seem like a baby. I didn’t want the driver to think I was ungrateful for the chance to leave what had become a hellish place over the last four and a half years.”
In the same endearing spirit of endlessly thoughtful observation and indomitable optimism, she adds:
“We were all refugees - rich or poor. And refugees all look the same - there’s a unique expression you’ll find on their faces - relief, mixed with sorrow, tinged with apprehension. The faces almost all look the same.”
But for British journalism, their faces do not look the same - they do not even exist.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Write to Siobhain Butterworth, readers' editor of the Guardian
Write to the letters page
Visit www.4basra.org and consider donating to support children's hospitals in Basra, Iraq.
Category: Alerts 2007
- Created on 13 November 2007
- 15 November 2010
We are happy to report that we will be accepting the Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award on December 2. See here:
For the first time this year, thanks to readers’ donations, David Cromwell has been able to take a sabbatical from his full-time job as a researcher at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. This has meant David has been able to spend 50% of his time on Media Lens work for one year until March 2008. David Edwards continues to be able to devote most of his time to Media Lens.
One of our longer-term projects this year has involved working on a follow up to our book Guardians Of Power (Pluto Press, 2006). Last year, we documented some of the tremendous press reactions we got to our book from as far afield as South Korea and Japan (www.Media Lens.org/alerts/06/061003_an_appeal_for.php). The book has also been translated into Korean and Arabic. We cited positive comments from former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby and others. To this day, the book has yet to receive a single mention in any national British newspaper. We can hardly conceive of a greater back-handed compliment!
While the press reaction has been predictable enough, more interesting are the reactions of some of the larger ‘radical’ publishers to our proposals for a follow-up book. One commissioning editor rejected our sample chapters saying:
“it reads rather too much as a collection of Media Lens alerts, rather than as a standalone book, and that puts very severe limits on what it can be expected to do in commercial terms.”
A second editor wrote:
“It’s of course an urgent subject and you’ve assembled some great material, but it felt to us more a collection of pieces rather than a book, and we found ourselves wondering whether, as a book, it could make a lasting impact in the trade.”
This criticism would have been more credible to us if Guardians Of Power - also built around the most interesting sections from our media alerts - had not been so well received by experienced media commentators. John Pilger, for example, described it as “the most important book about journalism I can remember”. Also, our first book involved considerable rewriting, expansion and updating to make it a cohesive whole. We would hope that many readers found it a credible “standalone book” whose argument builds cumulatively throughout. The material we have assembled since its publication in early 2006 is, if anything, even more powerful - on climate change, Iraq, Iran, Latin America and other issues.
The unspoken real reason for rejection, we believe, is that these publishers have a morbid fear of alienating the big newspapers on which they depend for favourable reviews of their books, and of which we are so critical in our own.
We received a taste of this fear in 2002 when we invited readers to ask journalists why they had failed to review John Pilger’s book, The New Rulers of the World. We were sent this surprise response by Fiona Price at Verso, the publisher of Pilger’s book. Significantly, the email was copied to Susie Feay, the literary editor of the Independent on Sunday:
“Please could you ask the people who visit your website to refrain from emailing the literary editors of national newspapers questioning why they have not reviewed John Pilger's book, The New Rulers of the World. The Independent has a review waiting to be published but after receiving a number of unpleasant emails, all copied in to your email address, they are seriously thinking of pulling the review.
“I am working hard to get other national newspapers to review the book and do not appreciate having my efforts undermined by people who do not understand the pressure of space for reviews in newspapers. A paper's failure to review a title is not always politically motivated.” (Fiona Price, Marketing & Publicity Manager, Verso, email to Media Lens, July 30, 2002)
It turned out that Feay had received a grand total of two emails from our readers! Suffice to say, Pilger did not share Price’s view (his book was eventually reviewed by the Independent on Sunday, on April 20, 2003).
Verso’s reaction gave a small indication of how thought is controlled in modern society - not by force or physical intimidation, but by the sheer power of corporations to enable or deny access to a mass audience. Verso, recall, is one of the more courageous and radical of publishers.
The control is silent, the rules unwritten, undiscussed - it is simply understood that behaviour potentially or actually damaging to corporate interests will be punished. People are not disappeared in our society, but careers +are+ stalled, contracts are lost, professional relationships are soured. The net result is that important ideas are prevented from appearing, they are drowned out by ideas deemed safe and suitable based on priorities other than honesty and compassion.
In his book, Disciplined Minds, American physicist and writer Jeff Schmidt points out that professionals are trusted to run organisations in the interests of their employers. The key word is ’trust’. Because employers cannot be on hand to manage every decision, professionals are trained to “ensure that each and every detail of their work favours the right interests – or skewers the disfavoured ones” in the absence of overt control. Schmidt continues:
“The resulting professional is an obedient thinker, an intellectual property whom employers can trust to experiment, theorise, innovate and create safely within the confines of an assigned ideology.” (Schmidt, Disciplined Minds – A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals And The Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000, p.16, www.disciplinedminds.com)
Even to have this discussion, even to talk about the problem of corporate control, is to be ‘untrustworthy’, to be judged beyond the pale. As ever, the rationalisation revolves round the idea that it is somehow impolite, disrespectful, unreasonable and even disgraceful to bring to light what is ‘simply understood’ and cannot be challenged. The ‘gentleman’s agreements’ that so often lie at the heart of modern systems of thought control really are deemed to be just that - to challenge them is to be deemed something less than a “gentleman”.
Fiona Price’s email was really a convoluted way of saying what the King of Spain - aka, Juan Carlos Alfonso Víctor María de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias - recently said to Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez:
“Why don't you shut up?”
Chavez later replied:
“I think it's imprudent for a king to shout at a president to shut up. Mr King, we are not going to shut up."
It is imprudent, indeed, for any of us to “shut up” when so much modern suffering is built precisely on silence.
Last year, we mentioned that Norway’s Medialupe, in part inspired by Media Lens, was underway: www.medialupe.no/
Since then, Ireland’s Media Bite has also started seriously challenging the Irish media: www.mediabite.org/
Media Bite’s excellent Media Shot, ‘Tipping the Balance In The West,’ (http://www.mediabite.org/article_Tipping-the-balance-west_959696573.html) was recently published in the leading Irish political magazine The Village.
As ever, if you value what we're doing, please consider sending a donation. There are various methods by which you can donate, either as a one-off payment or on a regular basis.
Warm thanks to all our readers for their many kind words of support and donations over the last year - they are very much appreciated.
David Edwards, David Cromwell and Olly Maw
Category: Alerts 2007
- Created on 20 November 2007
- 15 November 2010
By: Nikolai Lanine and Media Lens
The writer Simon Louvish once told the story of a group of Soviets touring the United States before the age of glasnost. After reading the newspapers and watching TV, they were amazed to find that, on the big issues, all the opinions were the same. "In our country," they said, "to get that result we have a dictatorship, we imprison people, we tear out their fingernails. Here you have none of that. So what's your secret? How do you do it?" (Quoted, John Pilger, Tell Me No Lies, Random House, 2004, p.9)
It's a good question, one being asked by Nikolai Lanine who served with the Soviet Army during its 1979-1989 occupation of Afghanistan, but who now lives and works as a peace activist in Canada. Lanine has spent several years trawling through Soviet-era newspaper archives comparing the propaganda of that time with modern Western media performance.
If the claims of modern professional journalism are to be believed, the similarities should be few and far between. Soviet-era media such as Pravda (meaning, ironically, “The Truth”) are a byword for state-controlled mendacity in the West. Thus Simon Jenkins commented in the Times in the 1980s: “There is a smack of Pravda about this pious self-censorship.” (Jenkins, ‘A new name on the tin mug of scandal,’ The Times, March 19, 1989)
Doris Lessing, recent winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, wrote in 1992:
“Even five, six years ago, Izvestia, Pravda and a thousand other Communist papers were written in a language that seemed designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything. Because, of course, it was dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended. Now all these newspapers have rediscovered the use of language. But the heritage of dead and empty language these days is to be found in academia, and particularly in some areas of sociology and psychology.” (Lessing, ‘Questions you should never ask a writer,’ New York Times, October 13, 2007. Originally published June 26, 1992)
This standard Western association of thought control with totalitarian societies is a red herring. In fact, thought control is far more characteristic of ‘democratic’ societies - where state violence is no longer an option, propaganda comes into its own.
After all, it is a remarkable fact that our society never discusses the possibility that a corporate media system monitoring a society dominated by large corporations might be something other than free, open and honest. Consider Lessing’s analysis in the light of these comments from media analyst Danny Schechter:
“We are bombarded with information, although if you look closely, most of it has a similar grammar, a similar focus and similar sources, all revolving around institutions and topics that most viewers admit in survey after survey they don’t really understand.” (Schechter, The More You Watch The Less You Know, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.43)
Verbiage “designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything”, in other words, because it is “dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended”.
How “dangerous”? David Barsamian recently asked Noam Chomsky why one regular New York Times commentator refused to recognise blindingly obvious truths embarrassing to US power. Chomsky responded:
“If he wrote that, then he wouldn‘t be writing for the New York Times. There is a certain discipline that you have to meet. In a well-run society, you don’t say things you know. You say things that are required for service to power.” (Chomsky, What We Say Goes, Penguin, 2007, p.2)
We are very grateful to Nikolai Lanine for agreeing to co-author this piece and for his hard work over several months in making it possible. All quotations from the Soviet press archives were translated from the original by him. We are also grateful to Noam Chomsky who originally put us in touch with Nikolai.
A Humanitarian War of Self-Defence
Inspired by the success of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, US-backed Afghan militants – including future founders of the Taliban movement – stepped up their attacks on Afghan government forces in the late 1970s.
Fearful of the “threat to the security of [the Soviet] southern boarders”(Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, Secrets of the Afghan War, 1991, p.48) and concerned that the conflict might spread to neighbouring Soviet republics - and so risk radicalising their dominantly Muslim populations (accounting for more than 20% of the Soviet population) - the Soviet government invaded. The invasion was a straightforward act of aggression, an attempt to crush a perceived threat to Soviet security and power.
Inevitably, the Soviet government portrayed its invasion as an act of humanitarian intervention initiated at the “request of the [Afghan] government”. (Pravda, April 27, 1980) The aim was “to prevent the establishment of... a terrorist regime and to protect the Afghan people from genocide”, and also to provide “aid in stabilising the situation and the repulsion of possible external aggression”. (Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, p.48)
Once the “terrorists” had been defeated, Afghanistan would be left to become “a stable, friendly country”. The invasion, then, was in the best interests of the Afghan people - the focus of the Soviet government’s benevolent concern.
The Soviet media presented the invasion essentially as a peacekeeping operation intended to prevent enemy atrocities. Krasnaya Zvezda [Red Star], a major Soviet military newspaper, reported in May 1985:
"Since the establishment of this [Soviet] base, [the Mujahadeen]'s predatory extortions, violence, [and] reprisals have stopped; and poor peasants are [now] working the land peacefully." (Krasnaya Zvezda, May 1, 1985)
The same paper noted:
“Before the arrival of the Soviet soldiers here, [the area] was literally swarming with [insurgents]... [who] were ruthlessly killing... everyone, who was desperately longing for a new life... However, Soviet soldiers arrived, and life in the district has started normalising." (Krasnaya Zvezda, October 27, 1985)
Voenni Vestnik [Military Bulletin] took it for granted that "...[Soviet] paratroopers are protecting peaceful [Afghan] citizens". (Voenni Vestnik #4, 1983)
This, of course, was a reversal of the truth that the Soviet superpower was killing large numbers of civilians and causing great suffering to the population.
Pravda insisted that the Afghan army had conducted military operations “at the demand of the local population” and because of “the danger to lives and property of citizens” posed by the resistance. (Pravda, February 7, 1988)
Military personnel constantly echoed government claims that intervention was required “to help the hapless Afghan people to defend their freedom, their future”. (Krasnaya Zvezda, January 5, 1988)
The invasion was also portrayed as an act of self-defence to prevent a “neighboring country with a shared Soviet-Afghan border... [from turning] into a bridgehead for... [Western] aggression against the Soviet state”. (Izvestiya, January 1, 1980) Soviet intervention was also a response to unprovoked violence by Islamic fundamentalists (described as “freedom fighters“ in the West), who, it was claimed, planned to export their fundamentalist struggle across the region “’under the green banner of Jihad’, to the territory of the Soviet Central-Asian republics”. (Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, p.45) The Soviet public were told they faced a stark choice: either fight the menace abroad, or do nothing and later face a much greater threat on home soil that would, geopolitically, “put the USSR in a very difficult situation”. (Sovetskaya Rossia [Soviet Russia], February 11, 1993)
This theme was endlessly stressed by the Soviet media system - Soviet forces were “not only defending Afghan villages. They keep the peace on the borders of [our] homeland”. (Pravda, April 2, 1987) The goal was "peace and security in the region, and also the security of the southern border of the USSR". (Mezhdunarodnyi Ezhegodnik, 1981, p.224) The unquestioned assumption was that Soviet forces had no option but to act “pre-emptively” in “self-defence”.
Reading Soviet propaganda on these themes inevitably recalls Tony Blair’s famous assertion:
"What does the whole of our history teach us, I mean British history in particular? That if when you're faced with a threat you decide to avoid confronting it short term, then all that happens is that in the longer term you have to confront it and confront it an even more deadly form." (ITN News at 6:30, January 31, 2003)
To this day, many former Soviet military and media commentators continue to reinforce similar claims. Former top Soviet military adviser in Afghanistan, General Mahmut Gareev, writes in his book "My Last War" (1996) that the "situation in Afghanistan was of great importance" for the security of the Soviet state (p.363). The "high political, military and strategic interests of the USSR demanded certain actions and decisions". (p.36) The Soviet leadership was "aware that events in the south of the country were exceptionally important and had great significance for the security of the Soviet state. It was impossible not to react". (p.35-36)
After the 1979 invasion, the Afghan insurgency repeatedly launched attacks on border areas, including rocket strikes on Soviet towns. Ignoring the fact that these attacks were a +response+ to Soviet aggression, the Soviet media described them as “provocative criminal acts against the Soviet territory”. (Izvestiya, April 20, 1987)
For Democracy And Human Rights - America And Britain Attack
In near-identical fashion, the British and American governments have presented their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as acts of self-defence which also happen to be in the best interests of the Afghan and Iraqi populations.
In 2001, the then UK defence secretary Geoff Hoon insisted that, in Afghanistan, Britain “was acting in self-defence against Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qa'ida network”. (Ben Russell, ‘Parliament - terrorism debate,’ The Independent, November 2, 2001)
As with the Soviet media, the self-defensive, humanitarian intent behind both invasions are staples of much US-UK media reporting. On the April 12, 2005 edition of the BBC's Newsnight programme, diplomatic editor Mark Urban discussed the significance of a lessening of Iraqi attacks on US forces since January:
“It is indeed the first real evidence that President Bush's grand design of toppling a dictator and forcing a democracy into the heart of the Middle East could work.” (Urban, Newsnight, BBC2, April 12, 2005)
When George Bush declared: "we are not conquerors; we're liberators”, he could have been quoting one of the top Soviet generals in Afghanistan, who said:
“We didn't set ourselves the task of conquering anyone: we wanted to stabilise the situation.” (Varennikov, CNN Interview, 1998)
In April 2002, Rory Carroll wrote in the Guardian:
“Whoever is trying to destabilise Afghanistan is doing a good job. The broken cities and scorched hills so recently liberated are rediscovering fear and uncertainty.” (Carroll, 'Blood-drenched warlord's return,' The Observer, April 14, 2002)
The point being that, for Carroll, as for George Bush, Afghanistan really had been “liberated” by the world’s superpower.
The New York Times wrote in September 2007:
”Military statistics show that U.S. forces have made some headway at protecting the Iraqi population, but there are questions over whether the gains can be sustained.” (Michael R. Gordon, ‘Assessing the “surge”,’ New York Times, September 8, 2007)
Even in reporting that a large proportion of world opinion wants to see the US leave Iraq, the BBC managed to boost the claimed humanitarian intent:
“Some 39% of people in 22 countries said troops should leave now, and 28% backed a gradual pull-out. Just 23% wanted them to stay until Iraq was safe.” (Most people 'want Iraq pull-out,' http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/ hi/middle_east/6981553.stm, September 7, 2007)
The idea that Iraq might not be safe until US-UK troops leave, is unthinkable to many Western journalists, as it was to Soviet journalists.
In some cases, Western reporting perhaps even surpassed Soviet propaganda. As US tanks entered Baghdad on April 9, 2003, ITN's John Irvine declared:
"A war of three weeks has brought an end to decades of Iraqi misery." (ITN Evening News, April 9, 2003)
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States were in response to decades of US-UK violence, and support for violence, in the Middle East. For what it’s worth, Osama bin Laden specifically cited Western oppression in Palestine, Western sanctions against Iraq, and US bases in Saudi Arabia, as reasons for the attacks. And yet, as in the Soviet case, US-UK aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq was justified as a response to attacks that were “unprovoked”. Blair even cited the 9/11 attacks as evidence to this effect on the grounds that the attacks had taken place long before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In both the West and the USSR, the occupations were, and are, presented as fundamentally well-intentioned acts motivated by rational fears and humanitarian aspirations.
In Accordance With International Law
According to the Soviet government, the 1979 invasion was justified by international law (Pravda, December 31, 1979; Gareev, 1996, p.40) and was "in complete accordance with... the 1978 Soviet-Afghan Treaty". (Izvestiya, January 1, 1980) The Soviet state had to honour its obligations "to provide armed support to the Afghan national army". (Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, p.47)
In 1988, Izvestiya quoted general Boris Gromov, the commander of Soviet troops in Afghanistan:
"We came to Afghanistan at the end of 1979 at the request of the lawful government [of Afghanistan] and in accordance with the agreement between our countries based on the... Charter of the United Nations." (Izvestiya, July 2, 1988)
Soviet journalists consistently supported these claims. Pravda and Izvestiya wrote in 1980 that Soviet forces were in Afghanistan "at the request of the [Afghan] government with the only goal to protect the friendly Afghan people” (Pravda, March 16, 1980) and “to help [this] neighbouring country... to repel external aggression". (Izvestiya, January 3, 1980)
Such views were frequently expressed by Soviet elites and mainstream journalists. The 1980 issue of International Annual: Politics and Economics, published by the Soviet Academy of Science, observed that the Afghan government “repeatedly asked the USSR" to provide "military aid". The "Soviet government granted the [Afghan] request, and the limited contingent of Soviet troops was sent into the country," Mezhdunarodnyi Ezhegodnik noted (1980, p.208). Such actions were entirely in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter and Article 4 of the [Soviet-Afghan] Treaty of December 5, 1978, Ezhegodnik added. (1981, p.224)
Soviet leaders and commentators criticised and debated, not the fundamental +illegality+ of the invasion, but the merit of the +strategies+ for achieving its goals.
Soviet Chief of General Staff Ogarkov argued in 1979 (before the invasion), that the decision to send troops to Afghanistan was “inexpedient” because the initial invasion force of 75,000 was insufficient to the task, which was to “stabilise the situation in Afghanistan.” It was “impossible to achieve this goal with such a [small] force”, he claimed. (Quoted, Lyahovsky & Zabrodin, 1991, p.59). General Gareev, a top Soviet advisor to the Afghan armed forces, argued in his memoirs that “from the military point of view, it was perhaps more advisable to conduct a more massive and powerful invasion of Afghanistan”. (Gareev, 1996, pp.45-46)
In the 1980s, the invasion was seen by many Russians as a “mistake” rather than a crime. The attack was deemed legal and well-intentioned, but poorly executed and at excessive cost to the +Soviets+ - a view that is commonly held to this day. Apart from extremely rare exceptions describing Soviet “participation in the Afghan war” as “criminal” (Trud [Labour] newspaper, January 22, 1992), the invasion has almost never been described as an act of Soviet aggression.
When the US and UK governments talk of their “just cause” in Afghanistan they are essentially repeating the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya which quoted an Afghan official declaring that the Soviet and Afghan soldiers were fighting “for a just cause and happy new life for all Afghan people”. (Izvestiya, January 14, 1986)
Similarly, and almost exactly echoing Izvestiya, an Observer editorial commented in October 2006:
"The UK has responsibilities to the elected democratic government of Iraq, under a UN mandate. Britain must honour its commitments to its partners in Baghdad and in Washington." (Leader, ‘Blair should heed the general's reality check,’ The Observer, October 15, 2006)
While the manifest illegality of the 2003 Iraq invasion is presented by newspapers like the Observer as a kind of initial teething problem rendered irrelevant by a subsequent “UN mandate“, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan takes a different view:
“The Security Council’s mandate was for us to help the Iraqi people. I don’t think one can say that the Security Council sanctioned the occupation of Iraq, it merely noted the occupation of Iraq and asked the UN to help the Iraqi people...“ (Mark Disney, On The Edge, August 2007)
The only US/UK responsibility under international law is to leave.
Closely echoing Soviet performance, the US-UK media essentially never challenge the fundamental and obvious illegality of both invasions, focusing also on “mistakes”. Reviewing the situation in Iraq, Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the Guardian:
“... the question being asked here [Washington], even by staunch Republicans who share the president's goals, is: why has the Bush administration been so incompetent?” (Garton Ash, ‘Iraq's government has failed, but America's isn't doing so well either,’ The Guardian, September 6, 2007)
For Garton Ash, as for most Guardian commentators, the key issue is “incompetence”, not the supreme criminality that is the waging of a war of aggression.
On August 20, 2007, the New York Times website linked to an article titled, ‘The Good War, Still to Be Won,’ with the synopsis: “We will never know just how much better the fight in Afghanistan might be going if it had been managed more competently over the past six years.” (New York Times, August 20, 2007)
This closely echoes Soviet media performance on the 1979 invasion, where there was also close to zero recognition of the illegality of the invasion, as described reflexively in the Western media at the time. Ironically, contemporary US-UK media are closely matching the Soviet propaganda they ridiculed in the 1970s and 1980s.
To their credit, the Soviet media did at least, on occasion, +mention+ the issue of international law. In their book, The Record Of The Paper, Howard Friel and Richard Falk note that in the seventy editorials on Iraq that appeared in the New York Times from September 11, 2001, to March 21, 2003, the words ‘UN Charter’ and ‘international law’ never appeared. (Friel and Falk, The Record Of The Paper: How The New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy, Verso, 2004, p.15)
We asked Hugh Sykes, a BBC journalist reporting from Baghdad, for his opinion on the issue of legality in relation to the invasion of Iraq. Sykes replied:
“The Americans et al always say they are here 'at the invitation of the democratically elected Iraqi government'.
“It certainly WAS an illegal occupation before the elections in 2005, but is it still illegal?
“I tend not to put phrases like that into reports because I think I should stick to reporting events and providing analysis when asked.” (Email to Media Lens, September 9, 2007)
Imagine a comparable comment from a BBC journalist in the 1980s:
‘The Soviets et al always say they are here 'at the invitation of the democratically elected Afghan government'. It certainly WAS an illegal occupation before... but is it still illegal?’
In fact, of course, Western reporters were never in doubt about the truth of the Soviet invasion. When we conducted a search of newspaper archives, we found, for example, dozens of media references in the 1980s to the Soviet “puppet government” in Kabul. The New York Times commented in 1988:
“Soviet troop withdrawal will leave behind a puppet Government whose ministries are laced with Soviet ‘'advisers.’” (A.M. Rosenthal, ‘The great game goes on,’ New York Times, February 12, 1988)
In February 1990, Tony Allen-Mills reported for the Independent:
“Many former freedom fighters have made their peace with the puppet government left behind by the departing Soviet army.” (Allen-Mills, Out of Kabul: ‘Why pride must not come before a Najibullah fall,’ The Independent, February 19, 1990)
By contrast, the same newspaper reported of the Taliban in June 2006:
“Their focus is the ‘puppet’ government of Mr Karzai and its complicity in what is portrayed as the Western military persecution of ordinary Afghans.” (Tom Coghlan, ‘Karzai questions Nato campaign as Taliban takes to hi-tech propaganda,’ The Independent, June 23, 2006)
Readers will search long and hard before they find an example of a news reporter describing the current Afghan government as a “puppet government” without the use of inverted commas.
As for the idea that BBC journalists avoid controversial “phrases” and merely “stick to reporting events“, the day after Sykes’ reply the BBC website observed:
“The surge was designed to allow space for political reconciliation...” (‘US surge “failure” says Iraq poll, BBC online, September 10, 2007; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/6983841.stm)
It is not, in fact, less controversial to suggest that the massive increase in US violence “was designed to allow space for political reconciliation”, than it is to argue that the invasion was illegal.
Blaming ‘External Interference’
A striking feature of Soviet media performance on Afghanistan was its focus on “external interference” - primarily US in origin - and the role of this interference in fuelling the war.
In 1988, Pravda reported that Afghan president Najibula had criticised this ”interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan”. (Pravda, February 9, 1988) The newspaper failed to mention that the Soviet Union was itself guilty of illegal external “interference“. Instead, journalists blamed the West for ”pouring oil onto the fire of the Afghan conflict”. (Pravda, February 22, 1987) Ignoring the fact that much of the fighting in Afghanistan was in +response+ to the Soviet occupation, the media were also heavily critical of Iran and Pakistan.
Iran was criticised for “supporting the armed Islamic opposition” and for “sending its political emissaries and agents into the territory of Afghanistan”. (Spolnikov, 1990, pp.104-105) Russian journalist Andrei Greshnov, who worked as a TASS correspondent in Afghanistan for eight years in the 1980s, describes in his book “Afghanistan: Hostages of Time” (2006) how for several years, starting in the early 1980s, he was tasked with collecting information on Iranian Shia infiltration across the Afghan border near Herat. Iranian influence was very tangible in Western Afghanistan and widely confirmed by the testimony of Soviet soldiers interviewed (by Lanine) over the last 20 years.
We wonder how the Western media would have reacted if, in response to claims that Tehran had supported the Afghan insurgency and resisted their illegal invasion, Soviet officials had proposed bombing Iran. One can only guess at the level of Western outrage and horror at such a clear example of Soviet aggression, if an attack +had+ taken place. Presumably the press would never have tired of reminding us that the Soviets’ real goal in the region was control of oil.
The Soviet press also directed fierce criticism at Pakistan for training and aiding Afghan jihadis, and for providing “the bridgehead for an undeclared war against [Afghanistan]”. (Izvestiya, February 19, 1986) Readers were left with the impression that “external interference” and “terrorism” were the +only+ reasons for the continuing bloodshed, with Soviet troops acting in self-defence to bring “stability” to Afghanistan. In most reporting, the Soviet role in sustaining the conflict was not even a consideration.
The Soviet media heavily emphasised that weapons captured by Soviet and Afghan troops “were manufactured in the USA, UK, Italy, Iran, Pakistan”. (Izvestiya, July 7, 1987) These arms were “arriving from Iran [and] Pakistan” (Komsomolskaya Pravda, March 4, 1987), and “exploding and shooting in Afghanistan, killing children, women, soldiers...”. (Komsomolskaya Pravda, January 14, 1986)
Closely echoing Soviet government propaganda, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on October 25, 2007:
"Unfortunately the Iranian government continues to spurn our offer of open negotiations, instead threatening peace and security by... supporting Shia militants in Iraq and terrorists in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.” (‘US imposes new sanctions on Iran,’ BBC website, October 25, 2007)
As in the Soviet case, the US-UK media have heavily boosted the US-UK governments’ emphasis on “external interference“. A June 17, 2007, New York Times report observed:
"American forces have begun a wide offensive against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia on the outskirts of Baghdad." (Thom Shanker and Michael Gordon, 'GIs in Iraq open major offensive against al Qaeda,' New York Times, June 17, 2007)
The BBC's Andrew North emphasised the same alleged enemy:
"10,000 US and Iraqi troops are taking part in an operation against al-Qaeda." (North, 'US launches major Iraq offensive,' BBC Online, June 19, 2007; http://news.bbc.co.uk/ go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/middle_east/6766217.stm)
Occasional glimpses of truth defy the rhetoric. The Iraq Study Group Report, published in December 2006, concluded:
"Most attacks on Americans still come from the Sunni Arab insurgency... Al Qaeda is responsible for a small portion of the violence in Iraq, but that includes some of the more spectacular acts." (The Iraq Study Group Report, December 6, 2006; www.usip.org/isg/iraq_study_group_report/ report/1206/iraq_study_group_report.pdf)
General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the British army, said of Iraq in September, 2007:
"By motivation... our opponents are Iraqi nationalists, and are most concerned with their own needs - the majority are not bad people." (Richard Norton-Taylor, ‘Embrace returning troops, pleads army chief,’ The Guardian, September 22, 2007)
This was a remarkable comment - it is hard to recall any journalist ever contradicting government demonisation of the Iraqi resistance so completely. A more typical description was provided by senior ITN correspondent James Mates in June 2004, when he reviled the "determined and brutal terrorists" threatening Iraq, which was "now sovereign". (ITN, 18:30 News, June 28, 2004) There is indeed hideous terrorism in Iraq, but British journalists generally find it simpler, more convenient, to include all insurgents in this category.
Reflexive demonisation of Iran is also, of course, a constant focus of media reporting. A New York Times article observed:
“U.S. Says Iranian Arms Seized in Afghanistan" (New York Times, April 18, 2007). These “new signs of interference by Iran have raised concerns about the obstacles to a stable and democratic postwar Iraq”. (‘U.S. warns Iran against interference,” The Sun, Baltimore, April 24, 2003)
In similar vein, the Observer reported in August:
“The conflict in Helmand has morphed way beyond that of crushing the Taliban. The nightmare scenario has unfolded: the Helmand valley has mutated into a geopolitical battleground for jihadists, a blooding ground for budding martyrs from across the globe.
“Convoys of Toyota Land Cruisers carrying holy warriors stream daily from Pakistan's porous border to target British teenagers.” (Mark Townsend, ‘Afghan Conflict: 'It's bleak and ferocious, but is it still winnable?', The Observer, August 19, 2007)
An Independent leader commented:
“There must be an acceptance also that the Taliban will never be utterly defeated until they are denied a safe haven in the western provinces of Pakistan.” (Leader, ‘Politicians must accept the reality on the ground,’ The Independent, August 14, 2007)
The point is not that external support for the resistance in Afghanistan and Iraq exists, as it certainly existed for insurgents fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. The point is that, in contemporary Western media, as in the Soviet case, the non-Western source of “external interference” is reflexively condemned as illegitimate, while the legitimacy of US-UK “external interference” is simply assumed.
Patriotism And ‘Backing Our Troops’
In their speeches, Soviet officials regularly affirmed the military’s “deep belief in the noble cause of helping the friendly nation” of Afghanistan (Pravda, 15 May 1988), stressing that Soviet advisors were working “shoulder to shoulder with... Afghans”. (Zhitnuhin, & Likoshin, 1990, p.169)
One Soviet journalist claimed of Soviet political advisors:
"They went to Afghanistan with a sincere belief in the high purpose of their mission. For most of them this belief grew into a conviction." (Zhitnuhin, & Likoshin, p.171)
The steady supply of media stories lauding the motivation and heroism of the troops on the ground reflected the high status of the military in Soviet society. The writings of most “embedded” journalists who spent time with troops were full of admiration and respect for all ranks from privates to generals. Even Gennady Bocharov, whose book on Afghanistan is full of harsh criticism of the Soviet system, presents a sympathetic account of Soviet soldiers, and also of Gromov, the commander of the Soviet occupation. Bocharov describes Gromov as a “charming general” with “more compassion than any priest” who, nonetheless, “as a regular army man... carried out his inhuman mission in Afghanistan with precision and efficiency”. (Bocharov, 1990, p.142)
Similar sentiments expressed towards front-line troops are found throughout Greshnov’s book and provide a striking contrast to his harsh critique of the Soviet military leadership. He describes how, on one occasion, his bonding with Soviet troops left him speechless with emotion.
These ties were naturally reflected in reporting by most journalists that depicted fighting men as brave and selfless, in many cases justifiably. But, more generally, the media’s emphasis on the heroism of individual soldiers helped bury the hidden, deeper truths, namely: the illegality and appalling destructiveness of the invasion.
Western journalism is of course similarly full of patriotic praise for troops under fire. As US tanks arrived in Baghdad and US troops prepared to topple a statue of Saddam Hussein, ITN's veteran correspondent, Mike Nicholson, was positively gleeful:
"They've covered his face in the Stars and Stripes! This gets better by the minute... Ha ha, better by the minute." (Tonight with Trevor McDonald, ITV, April 11, 2003)
Nicholson was describing the completion of an appalling act of aggression, a war that had been launched illegally. And as we commented at the time, even the troops draping the US flag over the face of Saddam Hussein’s statue quickly understood that this was a deeply offensive and foolish act.
Thus, also, the BBC's version of events in Iraq:
"You can marvel at the Americans' can-do spirit... in the [US] sergeant's case the will to carry on comes from a sense of responsibility towards the people of Iraq." (Mark Urban, '"Can-do" spirit of US troops in Baghdad,' Newsnight, May 17, 2007)
Another BBC journalist, Paul Wood, recently described his “journey through Iraq's Sunni heartland with the soldiers of the 101st Airborne". Wood concluded his article with these comments on the US forces:
"They must win here if they are to leave Iraq.
"Even if things are turning around, their local allies remain uncertain, the population divided, the casualties, although reduced, keep coming.
"There is much still to do." (Wood, ‘Voyage into Iraq's Sunni centre,’ BBC website, October 26, 2007; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7063603.stm)
Despite all the deceptions, false pretexts, evident illegality, and evident motive of control of oil, Wood presented the occupation as a peacekeeping operation. This is indistinguishable from the performance of the totalitarian Soviet press in the 1980s.
Timothy Richard, a former soldier with Iowa Army National Guard, who refused to deploy to Iraq and became a war resister, writes:
“The problem with the media’s perception in the US, is what I’ve come to call the ‘cult of the soldier’.” (Email to Lanine, August 10, 2007)
Richard says that the media followed the government’s lead in creating the slogan “Support our Troops”, so that even opponents of the war felt obliged to conform.
Soviet critics of the Afghan war were also accused of a shameful lack of patriotism and a failure to support the troops. Thus, in 1988, Izvestiya quoted general Gromov’s reference to “irresponsible” comments by people who “doubt the heroic deeds” of Soviet soldiers: “Nobody, not a single person in our country, has the right to ruin the faith of young people in the sanctity of the military biography that wasn’t lived in vain.” (Izvestiya, July 2, 1988)
Invisible Civilian Casualties
The Soviet media completely suppressed the devastating consequences of the occupation for the civilian population of Afghanistan. On occasions when the cost of the war was discussed, it focused on the cost to the Soviet Union. It is estimated that 1.5 million Afghans (Bradsher, 1999) and 15,000 Soviets (The New York Times, February 16, 1989) died during the nine years of fighting. But the Soviet media had little interest in Afghan casualties. Aside from a tiny number of dissidents, few voiced concern for a civilian population that bore the brunt of the suffering.
Even during Gorbachev's semi-liberal reforms of the late 1980s, discussion of Afghan suffering was strictly prohibited. Andrei Greshnov describes how he repeatedly wrote about Afghan civilian casualties in the monthly classified reports submitted by all TASS journalists to the Soviet leadership in Moscow (it was of course important for decision makers to know the truth of the situation on the ground). Greshnov recalls:
“The government +knew+ the truth about the situation in Afghanistan, including about civilian casualties – I personally wrote about it. But such information was never allowed to reach the general public through the mainstream Soviet press.” (Phone interview with Lanine, August 8, 2007)
By contrast, Western journalists are largely unconstrained by state controls. And yet, in early January 2002, American writer Edward Herman estimated that media coverage afforded to the death of Nathan Chapman - the first and, at that point, sole US combat casualty of the invasion of Afghanistan - had exceeded coverage afforded to +all+ Afghan victims of bombing and starvation. CNN Chair Walter Isaacson is reported to have declared that it “seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan“. (Howard Kurtz, ‘CNN chief orders “balance” in war news,’ Washington Post, October 31, 2001)
The US-UK bombing of Afghanistan began on October 7, 2001. On September 19, 2001, the Guardian had reported forty deaths per day in Maslakh refugee camp to the west of Herat in Afghanistan, “many because they arrive too weak to survive after trying to hold out in their villages“ as the threat of bombing shut down all aid convoys. By January 2002, Maslakh contained 350,000 people, making it the largest refugee camp in the world at that time. Aid agencies reported that 100 people were dying every day in the camp.
Occasional references to this disaster did appear. Between September 2001 and January 2002, the Guardian and Observer mentioned Maslakh a total of five times - an average of once per month. A Lexis-Nexis database search in May 2005 showed that Maslakh had been mentioned 21 times over the previous four years in all UK national newspapers.
On October 29, 2004, the prestigious scientific journal, The Lancet, published a report by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, and Columbia University, New York: 'Mortality before and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: cluster sample survey.' (http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/ article/PIIS0140673604174412/fulltext)
The authors estimated that almost 100,000 more Iraqi civilians had died than would have been expected had the invasion not occurred. The report was met with instant (and as it turns out, fraudulent) government dismissals, and a low-key, sceptical response, or outright silence, in the media. There was no horror, no outrage.
Our media search in November 2004, showed that the Lancet report had at that time not been mentioned at all by the Observer, the Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Star, the Sun and many others. The Express devoted 71 words to the report. A similar reception awaited the October 2006 Lancet study, which reported 655,000 excess deaths since the 2003 invasion.
This, however, does represent a difference from, and improvement over, Soviet media performance, which suppressed almost all discussion of civilian casualties. The Western media +does+ discuss casualties, but it consistently and heavily downplays the true cost of US-UK violence. As with the Soviet media, the concern is invariably for the cost to ‘us’. Also, the suffering is inevitably portrayed as unavoidable - alternative action would have resulted in far worse suffering, we are told - or the result of ‘mistakes’ rooted in benevolent intentions.
A further difference is that the Western media system is to an important extent responsive to media activism - rational criticism +does+ have an impact. However limited, this represents a valuable avenue for improving media performance.
The Cost of Leaving
In the 1980s, the continued presence of Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan was justified on the grounds that leaving would result in an even bloodier civil war. In his speech, published in Izvestiya on February 10, 1988, Gorbachev asked:
"Are military clashes going to intensify after the withdrawal of Soviet troops? It is hardly necessary to prophesy, but... such a development can be prevented if those who are now fighting against their brothers will take a responsible position and try, in practice, to join peaceful reconstruction."
The Soviet leadership claimed that they would leave Afghanistan only on the condition that “external interference stops”(Pravda, January 7,1988) and that “the faster the pace of establishing peace on Afghan soil, the easier it will be for Soviet troops to leave”. (Izvestiya, February 10, 1988)
Again, the official position was echoed uncritically by the Soviet media. Writing of planned negotiations in Geneva on the future of Afghanistan, Pravda's commentator Ovchinnikov stressed that "the cessation of external interference" in Afghanistan was a precondition that would "allow Soviet troops to withdraw". He accused the US administration of avoiding positive solutions and stressed that the problem was "not the date of the beginning of the Soviet troops' withdrawal but the date of the stopping of American aid to [the mujahideen]". Ovchinnikov literally repeated the official line that Soviet soldiers "will leave Afghanistan with a sense of duty accomplished when external interference stops". (Pravda, January 11, 1988)
The journal Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn commented:
"It is professed that as soon as we leave [Afghanistan], there will be a slaughter, slaughter, slaughter. My experience in Afghanistan indicates that, probably, there will be a civil war, [and] there will be fighting. This is an internecine war. When I was flying out of Afghanistan last year, I thought that after our withdrawal some part of NDPA would be wiped out by the vengeful Islamic movement." (Prohanov, Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn [International Affairs] #7, 1988)
In similar vein, the Financial Times wrote in April: "this grim situation could easily get worse - if the Americans pulled out too quickly, or set a deadline for withdrawal that simply encouraged their foes to wait them out Iraq could tip into a full-scale civil war". (Leader, ‘No easy way out of Iraq Congress should not set an arbitrary deadline for withdrawal,’ Financial Times, April 11, 2007)
By contrast, Moskovskie Novosti argued that the rationale for staying had not been the whole story:
"The withdrawal of the Soviet troops raised a lot of defence problems for Afghanistan, but also opened the road for the solution of political problems." (Moskovskie Novosti, May 21, 1989)
The 2004 BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares, featured a 1987 debate between a Soviet journalist and commentator Vladimir Pozner (mistakenly identified in the documentary as a "Soviet spokesman in the US"), and American intellectuals, including Richard Perle, then Assistant Secretary of Defense. Pozner commented:
"I believe that we can get out [of Afghanistan], provided that no more aid is given to what people here call ‘freedom fighters‘, and we call ‘counter-revolutionaries‘. I believe that’s possible, provided that the United States is also interested in the same.”
"Well, it’s not very complicated. They arrived in a matter of days, on Christmas Eve in 1979; they could be home by Christmas Eve, if they decided to leave Afghanistan and let the Afghans decide their own future. If you leave, the problem of support to the mujaheddin solves itself.” (http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/video1038.htm)
Not quite the American position with regards to its own occupations today.
Soviet And Western Media - Similarities And Differences
Western reviews of Soviet media performance generally patronise Soviet journalists as submissive, eager functionaries of a state propaganda machine. These analyses fail to take into account the extreme difficulty of reporting honestly from within a totalitarian system. Unlike Western journalists, Soviet reporters were extremely vulnerable and essentially powerless. In a society where everyone was “merely a cog in a gigantic state-party machine,” Bocharov writes, “journalists played the part of rivets. If the body of the machine vibrated, then every rivet had to vibrate with it. And not individually, but together”. (Bocharov, p.56)
Why did Russian journalists who had extensively covered the victims of US aggression in Vietnam just a few years earlier not try to expose the truth of Afghan suffering?
The fact is that some +did+ try. This is made clear in the writings of Soviet journalists, two of whom (Andrei Greshnov and Sergei Bukovsky) Lanine recently interviewed by phone and email. For these journalists to even ask awkward questions was to place their careers in jeopardy. Those who were openly critical faced far more serious consequences.
Radio Moscow news announcer Vladimir Danchev famously called Soviet troops in Afghanistan "invaders" and “occupiers”, and even called on Afghans to continue their resistance. Danchev was quickly taken off air, investigated by the KGB, and forced to undergo psychiatric treatment (relatively mild punishment that reflected international awareness of Danchev‘s plight. See: New York Times, May 27 and December 15, 1983).
Other Soviet journalists had little choice but to stick to the official line. In the 1980s, multiple layers of censorship strictly blocked all attempts to discuss Afghan civilian casualties. Bocharov describes (1990) how we was forbidden even from mentioning +Soviet+ casualties (p.53) - to refer to the deaths of Afghan civilians was unthinkable. Articles by Soviet journalists from Afghanistan “were edited mercilessly”, Bocharov writes:
“The final touches would be applied in Moscow” by the civilian and military censorship. (pp.51-52)
In an email to Lanine (July 22, 2007), Bukovsky recalled how, in 1988, he published an article exposing the role of senior military incompetence in the deaths of Special Forces soldiers. Such courageous expressions of defiance were so unusual that Bukovsky was convinced he would be arrested along with the senior military censor, who Bukovsky describes as a "decent officer" who “fought hard with” him “for every word” in the published article. After the piece was published on July 14, 1988, Bukovsky and his censor expected officials to arrive and arrest them.
The arrest never happened, but the military censor was officially reprimanded and fell out of favour with his superiors. Bukovsky was interrogated by military counter-intelligence and his loyalty challenged. He was also strongly criticised for quoting a Soviet officer to the effect that Afghan insurgents "never leave their dead and wounded behind" - a comment that contradicted the official depiction of the Mujahadeen as "foul, blood-thirsty rogues". "I was [literally] spat at" for writing that, Bukovsky recalls.
The relationship of the Western media to centres of power is very different. By comparison with Soviet media workers who, Bocharov emphasises, “wrote what they were +ordered+ to [italics added]”, Western journalists have much greater freedom. And yet, crucially, the outcomes of media coverage on major themes - the illegality of launching wars of aggression, the fraudulence of alleged humanitarian motives, and the costs to civilian populations - are much the same. In both cases, a misinformed population was, and is, bombarded with "necessary illusions."
Western media have presented the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan from within strikingly similar frameworks to those provided by the Soviet government and media:
‘We’ (US-UK and the USSR) are acting in self-defence, out of good intentions, at the request of foreign governments and/or to spread democracy, while our enemies commit acts of aggression against us and the people we are trying to help.
‘Our’ goal is stability and peace - our enemies strive to intimidate through terror.
‘We’ act according to international law - our enemies are criminal, murderous, morally indefensible and guilty of “external interference“.
‘Our’ attempts to promote ‘values’ abroad are noble because inherently superior - our enemies’ values are medieval, irrational or non-existent.
The most revealing similarity is that the Western media fail, just as the Soviet media failed, to ask the most crucial questions:
By what legal and moral +right+ did we invade in the first place?
Without exploring these fundamental issues, and without incorporating honest answers in frameworks of reporting, the media neglect their most important task - the task described by the courageous Israeli journalist Amira Hass: “to monitor power”.
Like the Soviet media, Western professional journalists adopt and echo government statements as their own, as self-evidently true, without subjecting them to rational analysis and challenge. As a result, they allow themselves to become the mouthpieces of state power. It is fundamentally the same role performed by the media under Soviet totalitarianism.
The consequences for the victims of Soviet and US-UK state power are also fundamentally the same.
Gareev, M.A. (1996). Moya Poslednyaya Voina (Afganistan bez Sovetskih Voisk). [My Last War (Afghanistan Without Soviet Troops)]. Moscow: Insan.
Greshnov, A. (2006). Afganistan: Zalozhniki Vremeni [Afghanistan: Hostages of Time], Moskva: Tovarishestvo Nauchnih Izdanii KMK.
Gromov, B.V. (1994). Ogranichenny Kontingent [The Limited Contingent]. Moscow: "Progress" Publishing Group.
Lyahovsky, A.A., & Zabrodin, V.M. (1991). Taini Afganskoi Voini [Secrets of the Afghan War]. Moscow: Planeta.
Spolnikov, V.N. (1990, c1989). Afganistan. Islamskaya Opozitsiya: Istoki i Tsel. [Afghanistan: Islamic Opposition [and its] Origins and Goals], Moscow: Nauka.
Zhitnuhin, A.P. & Likoshin, S.A. (ed.) (1990). Zvezda nad Gorodom Kabulom. [The Star over Kabul-city], Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya [Young Guards]. (Chapter "The light on the summit" about Soviet advisers who worked in Afghanistan with Democratic Organization of Afghan Youth, p.169-)
BBC Broadcast (2004). The Power of Nightmares. Part II: The Phantom Victory. Retrieved from www.informationclearinghouse.info/video1038.htm
Bocharov, G. (1990). Russian Roulette: Afghanistan Through Russian Eyes. NY: A Cornelia & Michel Bessie Book.
Bradsher, H.S. (1999). Afghan Communism and Soviet Intervention. Oxford [Oxfordshire]; New York: Oxford University Press.
Varennikov, V. (1998). CNN Interview for 1998 CNN’s “Cold War” series, Episode 20: Soldiers of God. www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/episodes/20/interviews/varennikov/
Category: Alerts 2007
- Created on 01 November 2007
- 15 November 2010
The Guardian this week published an article by the readers’ editor, Siobhain Butterworth, discussing “the contradiction between what the Guardian has to say about environmental issues and what it advertises”. (Butterworth, ‘Open door - The readers' editor on... the contradiction between what we say and the ads we run,’ The Guardian, October 29, 2007; www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2200887,00.html)
Butterworth cited comments made by Guardian columnist George Monbiot following a discussion with Media Lens:
"Newspaper editors make decisions every day about which stories to run and which angles to take. Why can they not also make decisions about the ads they carry? While it is true that readers can make up their own minds, advertising helps to generate behavioural norms. These advertisements make the destruction of the biosphere seem socially acceptable."
Monbiot asked: "why could the newspapers not ban ads for cars which produce more than 150g of CO2 per kilometre? Why could they not drop all direct advertisements for flights?"
These were very sane and courageous questions from Monbiot - he deserves every credit for raising them. Butterworth supplied Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s comments in response:
"It is always useful to ask your critics what economic model they would choose for running an independent organisation that can cover the world as widely and fully with the kind of journalism we offer.”
It can of course be useful to discuss solutions in this way. However, we have noticed that the question, ‘Well, what’s your alternative?’, is often a fallback position after sheer weight of evidence has forced the abandonment of denials of the existence of a problem. So, for example, debaters - let’s call them the ‘Free Press’ Faithful - may tirelessly insist that, in the UK, we have “a press which has a relatively wide range of views - there is a pretty small ‘c’ conservative majority but there are left-wing papers, and there is a pretty large offering of views running from the far right to the far left...". (Andrew Marr, The Big Idea - Interview with Noam Chomsky, BBC 2, 1996, www.zmag.org/chomsky/interviews/9602-big-idea.html)
This may be their firm belief - or at least, what they are firmly determined to believe. On occasions when this position becomes untenable in debate - evidence that a corporate press does not report honestly on a world dominated by corporate power is overwhelming - the ‘Free Press’ Faithful will appear to agree and move on to alternatives.
Superficially, this looks like progress. But, all too often, the underlying conviction remains that there are no credible alternatives. The point being that a problem without a solution is not a problem; it is a fact of life. Rusbridger asked us in February 2004:
“I'd be interested to know what alternative business model you propose for newspapers which would sustain a large, knowledgeable and experienced staff of writers and editors, here and abroad, in print as well as on the web. Do you prefer no advertising lest journalists are corrupted or influenced in the way you imagine? If so, what cover price do you propose? Or, in the absence of advertising, what other source of revenue would you prefer?
“These are all interesting debates, and I wish you well. I can only answer as to my experience. alan.' (Email to Media Lens, February 6, 2004)
Alas, this was not a precursor of vibrant debate and discussion. For several years now, Rusbridger has refused to respond to our emails. Our 2006 book, Guardians Of Power, discussing these and related issues, has never been so much as mentioned by the paper, much less reviewed. This could, of course, simply reflect the worthlessness of what we have to say. George Monbiot, however - one of the most respected commentators on the paper - appears not to share this view. More to the point, Monbiot’s intervention aside, there has been essentially no discussion of issues that we and many readers (and many excellent writers and media analysts) have sought to raise over many years.
The suspicion that the Guardian editor is not willing to recognise the existence of a problem worthy of serious discussion and action is reinforced by other comments from him cited by Butterworth:
“Alan Rusbridger, warns against creating a ‘joyless’ paper. ‘If you had nothing to do with any form of consumption, your circulation would take a big dip and reading the Guardian would become a duty rather than a pleasure. We would be moving away from journalism... to preaching. So long as you do these things in reasonable proportion and balance, I do not think we should stop covering aspects of consuming such as travel or fashion, eating or holidays and motoring.’”
The Guardian editor is here leading readers away from the issues that matter. In fact, as Rusbridger well knows, if the Guardian “had nothing to do with any form of consumption”, it would go out of business, because it and other ‘quality’ titles are dependent on advertising for "75 per cent or more of their total take". (Peter Preston, 'War, what is it good for?', The Observer, October 7, 2001)
That is the problem and it is why newspapers have to be so careful not to alienate their big advertisers and related political allies. Rusbridger suggests that the real difficulty would be the “joyless” experience of an advert-free newspaper - but this is a mere diversion from very deep-rooted and serious issues.
And let’s consider the suggestion that “reading the Guardian would become a duty rather than a pleasure. We would be moving away from journalism... to preaching“ in context. Consider, first, that this was in response to a very reasonable suggestion that the Guardian might initially look at banning some of the more destructive forms of fossil fuel advertising.
Consider, further, the broader context. Wherever you look, corporate giants are investing in the same high consumption of fossil fuels that has already brought us to the brink of disaster. Last month, the BBC described “Airbus’ gamble on the success of the A380”, the new “Superjumbo” airliner. The “gamble” is based “on what Airbus believes will be ever-growing demand for long-haul travel". (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/7043812.stm)
In June, the Financial Times reported that a survey of business leaders had found that “Climate change is bottom of the priority list for Britain’s largest companies... and their biggest shareholders are not much more exercised by the issue.” (John Willman and Kate Burgess, ‘Climate change “not a business priority”,’ Financial Times, June 4 2007)
More than half of the companies surveyed by YouGov said there were more urgent issues, such as brand awareness, marketing strategies and corporate social responsibility. Just 14 per cent of them had a clear plan for tackling climate change.
A report from Headland, a communications consultancy, says fund managers “do not pay much attention to climate change issues when taking investment decisions”. They regard climate change effects as slow and cumulative and the issue as outside the remit of typical fund managers who “are not looking at 2012, let alone 2050”. Long term for the investment community was about three years, they said.
The New York Times reported last month:
"There is plenty of oil and gas still in the ground, energy executives say. But global consumption is rising so fast that they must keep looking for new sources. Despite worldwide concern over global warming and the role of fossil fuels in causing it, United States government specialists project that global oil and gas demand will increase by some 50 percent in the next 25 years." (Jad Mouawad, ‘A Quest for Energy in the Globe’s Remote Places,’ New York Times, October 9, 2007)
And yet the Guardian editor chooses to focus on bizarre notions of his paper having “nothing to do with any form of consumption”, of the risk of a “joyless” newspaper. Meanwhile, the world stands (at best) at the very brink of disaster, while big business acts as if nothing at all has changed. To spell it out: Something needs to be done - fast!
Finally, Rusbridger comments:
“The journalism we do matters much more than advertising. That is obvious. That is why the PR industry exists and why people try to buy space nested in the journalism context. As long as the journalism is free and we allow George Monbiot to criticise us and we feel free to criticise people who advertise, that is more important than the advertising.”
Here we face a positive shoal of liberal herrings - each one darting away from problems that are becoming ever more crucial. Of course journalism matters more than advertising. The problem is that a mountain of evidence demonstrates that profit-seeking corporate media - dependent on advertisers and allied government news sources, often also dependent on wealthy owners, or giant parent companies, and under constant attack from right-wing flak groups - suppress much that is important about our world and its problems.
The Guardian might claim to be free of one or more of these constraints, but this is irrelevant because the Guardian is one small part of a biocidal media system, and its record is anyway also lamentable. Holding up Monbiot’s virtually unique intervention as a sign that all is well, that tolerating such criticism is all that is required, is not reasonable. One article from Monbiot is not enough. The presence of one Monbiot tolerated on one newspaper is not enough. These are serious structural issues that cannot be wished away. And incidentally, we wonder just how much more would be tolerated from Monbiot. Would it take one burst of criticism alienating one big advertiser? Or two or three? How long would Rusbridger, himself, then be tolerated?
Monbiot’s questions were vitally important. How can we move away from a media dependent on fossil fuel advertising? What are the first small steps that could be taken? How might readers react positively to offset the financial damage incurred?
We are not economists, or financial strategists with detailed knowledge of the Guardian’s performance. We don’t know how media executives coped with the loss of tobacco advertising - we know it happened after being declared impossible. We are not specialists on how the British empire adjusted for the vast loss of revenue generated by the slave trade, although we know such a loss was declared insupportable (which it turned out not to be).
We believe that we, all of us, need to look beyond blinkered, short-term self-interest towards enlightened self-interest rooted in compassion for the suffering that surrounds us and that is sure to increase. In 1914, the novelist Robert Tressell wrote:
"Even if you are indifferent to your own fate – as you seem to be – you have no right to be indifferent to that of the child for whose existence in this world you are responsible.
"Every man who is not helping to bring about a better state of affairs for the future is helping to perpetuate the present misery and is therefore the enemy of his own children." (Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Oxford, 2005, p.129)
If these are harsh words, how then are we to describe the future facing us? Why do we lavish so much time, energy and love on our children, and yet do nothing to save them from a terrifying, collapsing world that they are now almost certain to inherit?
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Write to Siobhain Butterworth, readers' editor of the Guardian
Write to the letters page